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Study of former elite cricketers conducted by scientists at NDORMS highlights the benefits and risks of a career in cricket, including lower heart disease and a high quality of life, but an increased prevalence of osteoarthritis, joint replacement, and mental health conditions.

The benefits and risks of a career in cricket

A new study by Jones et al. published in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport has shown that former elite, male cricketers are at a greater risk of osteoarthritis, joint replacement, and mental health conditions, but have fewer heart problems than the general population. Former cricketers also reflected very positively on their cricket career, with 97% agreeing that they would do the same again.

Researchers at NDORMS, with support from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA), have recruited former elite cricketers in order to understand more about the long-term impact of a career in cricket on their health. This first publication in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport used a self-report questionnaire to compare the prevalence of long-term health conditions in 113 former elite cricketers to those of 4496 general population participants from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

Researchers found that the former elite cricketers aged 50 and above were more likely to have physician-diagnosed osteoarthritis, joint replacement at the hip or knee, anxiety, and depression. The former cricketers were less likely to have heart problems, and when asked to consider the benefits and risks of their participation in cricket, 97% of former cricketers agreed that they would do the same again and 94% agreed that they would recommend it to a loved one. 98% of the former cricketers also agreed that cricket had enriched their life.

Two additional studies of these cricketers have provided further insight into life after retirement from cricket. The first study by Filbay et al. recently published in BMJ Open found that these former cricketers were often very satisfied with their quality of life despite living with joint pain. Possible explanations for this were the high level of resilience and the positive attitudes about pain and physical impairments that were common amongst these former cricketers. Feelings of accomplishment and pride for their past cricket career also appeared to have a positive impact on their quality of life after retirement from cricket. The second study by Filbay et al., soon to be published in BMJ Open, found that living with joint pain did not prevent these retired cricketers from being physically active.

The study has been led by the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis, which aims to reduce the impact of sports injuries by examining the relationship between a range of sports participation and the subsequent risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Lead researcher Betsy Jones, from NDORMS, explained: “With the importance of physical activity to a healthy lifestyle, it’s important for us to acknowledge the health benefits and understand any negative impacts of sport so that we can inform healthy participation. Our first study findings in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport will contribute to dialogue on the benefits and risks in sport, and how best to care for the long-term health of elite athletes.”

Centre deputy director Professor Nigel Arden added: “The cricket studies are among several projects our Centre is undertaking to find out more about the effect of playing sports such as cricket, rugby, and football on players’ joints and overall health in later life. It is important to assess the effects of sport participation on all aspects of players’ health and quality of life, and we have demonstrated some of the long-term benefits of exercise in this study. We will continue to determine which risk factors may be contributing to the increased risk of osteoarthritis so that we can better understand its development and ultimately design prevention strategies.”

Dr Nick Peirce, the ECB’s Chief Medical Officer, said: “This survey is part of a long-term strategy being jointly pursued by the ECB and PCA to support player welfare and to examine strategies to reduce the burden of osteoarthritis and mental health issues that appear to be associated with professional sport, through supporting research with ARUK.

“The sample size is relatively small, but it confirms that we must continue to think and work proactively on issues affecting the mental and physical health of players after retirement. Previous PCA surveys have shown that around 20% of players go through low mood and anxiety during their first two years of retirement, which this study supports. Cricket is striving to reduce the stigma of mental health issues and it remains a key priority, helped by the work of the PCA and its ambassadors. We will also look to share our Duty of Care with other leading professional sports that are starting to tackle this area.

“We welcome ARUK support of research in this area, through their funding of another five-year cycle of the ARUK Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis, in conjunction with bodies such as Oxford University that have supervised this research.”

Ian Thomas, PCA Director of Development and Welfare, added: “Studies like this help the PCA confirm and understand the challenges a life in professional cricket can lead to. The PCA, ECB and the PCA Benevolent Fund work together to develop support and education to better deal with challenges that come after finishing a playing career. The PCA and ECB take a proactive approach to support players transitioning into the professional arena and now work equally as hard to help players deal with the transition after playing professionally through a variety of interventions.”

Dr Natalie Carter, head of research liaison and evaluation at Arthritis Research UK: “Over 8.5 million people live with osteoarthritis in the UK. The condition is very painful to live with and affects every part of a person’s life. At Arthritis Research UK, we are committed to finding better preventative methods, treatments and care. Studies like this help us to understand more about the relationship between sports and osteoarthritis. The more we understand, the more we can prevent and treat this condition as well as promoting great ways to keep active.”

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